Action on climate and energy: Beyond partisan talking points

Action on climate and energy: Beyond partisan talking points
© Greg Nash

Young Democratic activists calling for a “Green New Deal” surprised House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Trump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash Scrap House defense authorization provision benefitting Russia MORE last month. Their sit-in forced the incoming Speaker to pay attention to climate change, an issue she might have preferred to keep on the back burner.

Congressional Republicans, who have mostly denied that climate change is a problem, much less tried to solve it, are paying attention, too. Senate Environment Committee chair John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoTo stave off a recession, let's pass a transportation infrastructure bill Overnight Defense: GOP wary of action on Iran | Pence says US 'locked and loaded' to defend allies | Iran's leader rules out talks with US GOP senator: Iran is behind attack on Saudi Arabia MORE of Wyoming even took to the New York Times with a welcome call for more innovation to cut carbon emissions. 

As Senator Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzDemocratic senator rips Trump's 'let them fight' remarks: 'Enough is enough' Schumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever CNN catches heat for asking candidates about Ellen, Bush friendship at debate MORE (D-Hawaii) said: “It’s great that we moved the political conversation from whether or not we should act on climate change to what we should do about it.”

But talking about doing something is not the same as actually doing it. So far, neither side has moved far enough off its talking points to pave the way for meaningful action.

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For Green New Dealers, the key move is to embrace all forms of low-carbon energy, not just renewables and efficiency. The environmental left’s allergy to nuclear power and fossil fuel with carbon capture, use, and sequestration (CCUS) not only alienates potential allies among labor unions and other stakeholders in the Midwest, South, and Mountain West — it also rejects the most promising pathways to a full transformation of the global energy system.

The next move Congressional Republicans need to make is harder: accepting that government has a positive role to play in reshaping energy markets.

Senator Barrasso’s program of deregulation and tax cuts would merely deepen our fossil-fuel dependency, whereas smarter regulation and tax reform could unleash entrepreneurship that would make clean energy cheaper and reduce further damage from climate change.

Both sides should build on modest steps taken in the last Congress. Republicans and Democrats agreed on new tax incentives to stimulate CCUS innovation. They agreed on streamlined regulation to make it easier to build the next generation of nuclear plants without relaxing safety standards. They agreed on expanded federal research and development (R&D) spending across a broad front to stimulate new technologies and improve existing ones, including energy storage technologies needed to unlock the full potential of renewables.

State governments led by both parties provide further evidence that progress can be made on clean energy. Senator Barrasso’s home state, dominated by his Republican party, is not content to simply extract its plentiful fossil fuel resources; it is investing substantial public resources to become a leader in CCUS technology. Speaker Pelosi’s home state, dominated by her Democratic party, adopted the bold goal of a zero-carbon economy by 2045, but rejected doing so only with renewable energy.

Climate change is real, and it’s already affecting our lives. Congressional Republicans have begun to admit these truths, however grudgingly, and to adjust their positions accordingly. The Green New Dealers are right that the damage will get much worse if carbon emissions are not wrung out of the energy system much more quickly in the future. But insisting on a massive, top-down program that forces today’s costly technology on unwilling households and businesses is more likely to produce gridlock and backlash than results.

The vast majority of Americans in both political parties support an aggressive federal program that uses a wide array of policy tools to make clean energy affordable. It’s time for action in Congress that moves beyond partisan talking points and gives them what they want.

David M. Hart (@ProfDavidHart) is a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and professor of public policy and director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.